Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dirty Sluts in Wolfskin Coats: A Look at Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes

"I guess you think you know this story. /You don't. The real one's much more gory. /The phoney one, the one you know, / Was cooked up years and years ago, /And made to sound all soft and sappy/ just to keep the children happy." -Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, Cinderella

Simply put, this is one of my favorite books of all time, and undoubtedly, one of the most important I've ever read. I sometimes wonder what direction my life might have gone in had I not discovered it in the third grade. For it was this slim little volume that first introduced me to a beloved literary art form that became the cornerstone of my writing: the twisted fairy tale. Maybe without Revolting Rhymes, I would still have encountered Angela Carter, Maria Tatar, and the beauty of folkloric scholarship, but then again, who knows? With these six short rhymes, Dahl showed me a whole new world. In this world, the bedtime stories of my childhood could be transformed. They could have hidden meanings. They could be funny and frightening in a way I had never known. They could have life and breathe beyond themselves. And if fairy tales could, then all stories could! Hell, this book could be the reason I chose not just to love literature but to study it.

What's more, it's the book that began my love affair with the one and only Roald Dahl (not Ronald Dahl as I called him for much too long), author of wonderful works of fantasy, surrealism, and some of the scariest shit ever published. This is the man responsible for Willy Wonka, Miss Trunchbull, the Chokey, the Grand High Witch, the Landlady, Aunt Sponge, Aunt Spiker, the most treacherous carpet in the world, and those damn Oompa Loompas. All that out of one brain. Jesus Christ. But Revolting Rhymes is the book that, for me, started it all.

Last but not least, it's the book that taught me the word slut, though it took me a few years and Presidential scandals to learn the exact meaning. For that brief glimpse into the adult world, I've always held it close to my heart.

The setup is very simple. Dahl takes six well-known, beloved stories--Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs--and turns them all inside out. In rhyme. Basic and yet brilliant. "Faithfulness" is not an issue here. I always get slightly miffed when people complain about how a certain adaptation isn't faithful to the "original" fairy tale. When a story spends centuries being shaped and and twisted by generations of storytellers in the oral tradition (as all six of these stories were) before being printed in a book, there is no "original" version. There's the version you know best and/or the one you feel most defensive about.

Some of Dahl's poems differ wildly from the source material while others stay pretty close. He turns Snow White into the head of a gambling ring who uses her infamous good looks to get free rides and never ecounters an apple or a prince, though her story does include some of the more Sweeney Toddish elements of the Brothers Grimm version. Jack of beanstalk climbing fame is actually a halfway decent person whose mother is more of a monster than the giant. Dahl's Little Red Riding Hood is a joyous return to versions of old where the titular heroine was more than capable of outsmarting and escaping the Wolf, without the need for a Huntsman savior or a moralizing death (or both in the case of the Grimms' version). The Three Little Pigs makes a great Little Red sequel/crossover and features fantastic descriptions of how the Wolf eats the pigs. Goldilocks is a straight retelling with mostly everything the same except for the fact that the narrator clearly hates Goldie's guts and is much more honest about her antics than your average telling of the tale. I was never a huge fan of Goldilocks (the character) so this is without a doubt my favorite version of her story. Especially the last line.

Oh, and Cinderella's prince calls her a slut. Specifically, a dirty slut. Don't worry, it ends well.

Throughout, there are delightful references to cannibalism, executions, dog shit, illegal activity, obscene language, bowel movements (another happy phrase the book taught me), alcohol, underwear, and the ever reliable deus ex machina. There's even a sly sex joke quipped by Snow White's father during his search for a second wife that I didn't get until very recently. Of course, Roald Dahl makes it all funny as only he can. The illustations by Quentin Blake (who illustrated many of Dahl's books) are, like the poems, both childlike and grotesque. In Blake's pictures, Goldilocks looks like a small troll, one of Cinderella's stepsisters appears to have some kind of flesh-eating disease, Little Red's eyes never lose their knowing grin, and Snow White, inexplicably, is blond. It should be noted that this is not the only time an illustrator has made Snow White blond, but Blake is the only one who can get away with it, at least in my mind.

Fairy tales have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. They reflect something primal in the human spirit: the need to tell and hear stories. They helped shape the cultures that created them, their archetypal characters speak to the subconcious and their mix of magic and terror stirs the child in all of us. When I first heard the Revolting Rhymes, it was like Dahl had taken my hand and let me in on a wonderful secret: fairy tales are for adults too. It's a secret I stamped on my heart and have been spreading joyfully ever since.

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